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Politics and the Kingdom of God
How should Christians think about and interact with the political realm? Should Christians see any value in politics?
These are questions that drive much debate in our day. Some Christians lean toward a pessimistic view like that of the fifth-century pastor and theologian Augustine, seeing the existence of government and political rule as no more than “a necessary evil.” Others are much more optimistic about political and cultural engagement, taking a view like that of Chuck Colson that “transformed people transform cultures.”
Faithfully discerning how and whether Christians ought to engage politics is a difficult task. As theologian N.T. Wright points out, great difficulty arises from the vast differences between our worldview and that of the New Testament:
The problem should be clear to anyone who knows the world of the first century—or for that matter any century until the eighteenth, and any country outside so-called Western civilization. It is simply this: the implicit split between “religion” and “politics” is a rank anachronism, and we read it into the New Testament only if we wish not to hear anything the New Testament is saying, not only about what we call “the state” but about a great many other things as well. . . . We must be prepared to put our categories back into the melting-pot and have them stirred around a little. We cannot read a few “timeless truths” about the “state” off the surface of the New Testament and hope to escape with our world view unscathed. . . . What would a first-century Jew or Christian have made of the modern notion of “state”? Not a lot, I suspect.
Because of the cultural disconnect between our ideas about church and state and those of Scripture, approaches that try to strip-mine the Bible for principles for contemporary government and politics will go nowhere. Instead, Christians need a well-rounded vision for how to interact with the cultures and political contexts where we live. A good start would be to see what major theologians of church history as well as contemporary Christian thinkers have written about the role of the church and the state.
Augustine and Calvin on Church and State
Two of the most significant voices on church and state in the history of Christianity are Augustine and John Calvin.
Augustine is famous for dividing humanity into two “cities”: the city of God (civitas dei) and the city of man (civitas terrena). Scholar Linda Raeder writes, “The civitas dei consists of all those who orient their love . . . and reason toward the Highest Good—communion with God. The civitas terrena, on the other hand, is peopled by . . . all those whose love is exclusively directed toward the mundane order, those who pursue temporal goods as ends in themselves.” For Augustine, these two cities are always at odds in terms of their values, which means that there can never be a unified political society. This is not to say that there is no commonality between the two groups. Both groups, for instance, seek peace and justice, which are produced, at least partly, by government and law.
In Augustine’s view, government has a very limited role: “to intimidate and restrain those who would do evil so that the good may live in at least some semblance of peace and order . . . government serves an essentially negative function—to restrain and punish the wicked. Political rule is neither glorious nor enviable.”
Political movements are inherently unable to accomplish the type of change that people hope for.
John Calvin deals with issues pertaining to government in the last section of his Institutes. His view of the role of the state is much more positive than Augustine’s. In Calvin’s view, the purpose of government is “to cherish and protect the outward worship of God, to defend sound doctrine of piety and the position of the church, to adjust our life to the society of men, to form our social behavior to civil righteousness, to reconcile us with one another, and to promote general peace and tranquility.”
Calvin believes that government is necessary because of human sin and depravity, and Scripture teaches that all rulers are ultimately ordained by God. As a result, “no one ought to doubt that civil authority is a calling, not only holy and lawful before God, but also the most sacred and by far the most honorable of all callings in the whole life of mortal men.” (ibid. 4.20.4)
In our day, there are many Christians who lean in each direction: some are very pessimistic about the possibilities of politics, and some are quite optimistic. How can we decide between these two extremes?
Hunter and Faithful Presence
Christian sociologist James Davison Hunter’s recent work To Change the World offers a vision for faithful Christian cultural presence that is very helpful for thinking about our engagement with contemporary culture and politics. As he demonstrates, history, and social science disprove the belief that “transformed people transform cultures.”
Instead he offers a different approach for cultural engagement based on what he calls “faithful presence.” As Christopher Bensen summarizes,
Faithful presence is not about changing culture, let alone the world, but instead emphasizes cooperation between individuals and institutions in order to make disciples and serve the common good. “If there are benevolent consequences of our engagement with the world,” Hunter writes, “it is precisely because it is not rooted in a desire to change the world for the better but rather because it is an expression of a desire to honor the creator of all goodness, beauty, and truth, a manifestation of our loving obedience to God, and a fulfillment of God’s command to love our neighbor.”
Hunter’s approach is helpful because it shows that political movements are inherently unable to accomplish the type of change that people hope for, and instead puts the emphasis on faithful Christian living.
Hold It All, with Jesus above All
Neither an overly pessimistic nor an overly optimistic view of politics serves Christians well. Those who act as though politics are the primary way God has determined to bring about the kingdom of God will inevitably downplay the significance of the church as God’s agent through which the Spirit works in the world. On the other hand, those who avoid all political or cultural involvement as inherently evil will miss or downplay the social and cultural ramifications of the gospel of Jesus.